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Jun 1, 1976

The Man Who Would Be King

“When they reach the ancient land, they manage to get themselves accepted not only as rulers but as gods.”

The Man Who Would Be King is—O happy day!—a real “movie-movie,” that is, a picture with an exciting plot and characters whom one can identify with and who develop through the action of the plot. It is a joyous romp, an artful blend of humor and old-fashioned melodrama combined with the excellent ensemble acting and the myriad flashes and subtleties of insight that mark a great film director.

In this picture, indeed, the veteran director John Huston returns to the great movie-movies of his golden days. And, mirabile dictu, he has not only been faithful to Rudyard Kipling’s short story of the same name, but he has actually improved on that story by adding fascinating touches and sociopolitical insights, all faithful, however, to the spirit of the tale.

The movie is set in Kipling’s British India of the late nineteenth century; it opens as Kipling himself, a newspaperman in India at the time, meets the two lovable rogues, Sean Connery and Michael Caine, who play the central roles in the story. The Kipling character, brilliantly played by Christopher Plummer, is both catalyst and Chorus to the drama. Connery and Caine, leaving the British army under a cloud, decide to trek northward to an unknown land on the Indian frontier where, to use the old cliche, “no white man has ever trod.” The object: to make themselves kings of this native land by introducing British military techniques and by their own eye to the main chance. The ultimate aim of the adventure: to make their fortune. When they reach the ancient land, they manage to get themselves accepted not only as rulers but as gods. In a vast improvement over the original Kipling story, the process by which Connery is hailed as a god and Caine as his top aide is spelled out: by accident, an arrow hitting Connery in battle strikes a medal over his chest and therefore draws no blood; the natives promptly hail him as a god, indeed as the “son” of Alexander the Great, the previous white man who had come to and conquered this distant land many centuries before. The natives’ religion, indeed, had focussed all during this time on awaiting the return of the divine Alexander through his son.

In a fascinating hint of sociopolitical analysis, Huston shows that the monkish priests of the country, who rule the roost from their mountain monastery-city fastness, are highly reluctant to cede their rule to the new white god. They are convinced, however by Connery’s Masonic emblem, the very emblem enshrined in the priests’ sacred rites. It is a hilarious and delightful commentary on the allegedly mysterious and ancient history of the Masonic Order.

Having been accepted by the priests, Connery finds himself a god-king of the land, with Caine as the general of his army. The two adventurers find themselves absolute rulers, not only of the newly united country but also of a vast treasure of gold and jewels. After a period of such rule, Caine begins to agitate for them to fulfill their original purpose, to take the treasure and nip back to civilization. But Connery has come to “grow” into his kingly role, considers himself the ruler of “his” people, and even begins to believe in the mystique of his destiny and his alleged sonship to Alexander the Great.

Not only has Connery abandoned his original purpose, but he meets his doom when he decides to violate the solemn contract that he and Caine had made with each other: not to have anything to do with native women—made on the well-founded assumption that sex with the natives will spell trouble. But Connery, in his hubris of power, wants a queen to found a line of god-kings, and so he orders marriage with a native woman. Officially, the protest and resistance of the priests and the native population comes from their view that a god cannot mate with a human woman without causing her death. But there is more to it than that. At the marriage ceremony, the native woman bites Connery on the neck—an act clearly engineered by the priests. The flowing blood demonstrates that Connery is not a god, and he is savagely executed by the priests. The mark of a great movie and a great direct-tor, is subtlety rather than the typical Hollywood heavy underlining of “messages”; and the subtle point is that the priests execute Connery by sending him off on a rope bridge that he had constructed and then cutting the ropes. For Connery had constructed this bridge, which had made the monastery-capital city accessible to the masses, had cheapened the cost of transportation, and was in the process of developing a newly prosperous class of bourgeoisie who would eventually threaten the feudal caste-rule of the priests. Hence the vengeful joy with which the priests cut down the hated bridge.

Many critics have attacked The Man Who Would Be King as “sexist,” in that the hero Connery is brought to his doom by a female. This critique, however, totally misses the point, namely that Connery doomed himself through adopting the hubris of power. It was the seduction of power that went to his head, that lost him his original moorings, and that cost him his life. As in classic tragedy, the hero is brought low by his owrj “tragic flaw.” The critics also miss the vital role of the priestly ruling caste and their assault on the technological and economic development that endangered their rule.

The incidental delights of the film should not be missed. There are, for example, several hilarious “cultural relativist” jokes, made of course by Huston rather than Kipling, but yet in the latter’s spirit. Thus, when Connery is horrified at the natives playing polo with the heads of their defeated enemies, Caine reminds him: “Remember, we can’t question the mores of the natives.”

Connery and Caine are excellent, Connery making a graceful transition from romantic lead to character actor, Caine, obviously guided by Huston, shedding his usual smart-aleck and sophistocated Cockney image. A good time is had by all, actors and audience alike.